Appellate Judge Mike Pinsky is, like Mark Twain, never quite sane at night.
Our review of The Adventures Of Mark Twain (Blu-ray) (Region B), published October 30th, 2011, is also available.
"It is the will of God that we must have critics, and missionaries, and Congressmen, and humorists, and we must bear the burden. Meantime, I seem to have been drifting into criticism myself. But that is nothing. At the worst, criticism is nothing more than a crime, and I am not unused to that."—Mark Twain, 1906
I cannot say it any better than he could, and so, in the words of Mark Twain (James Whitmore), "Don't be afraid. Providence protects children and idiots. I know it's true. I've tested it."
Facts of the Case
Tom Sawyer (Chris Ritchie), Huck Finn (Gary Krug), and Becky Thatcher (Michele Mariana) are ready for another adventure. Although decades have passed since their exploits on the Mississippi, as chronicled in a few books you might have heard of, they are still the same boisterous children they were then. They still yearn to explore the world. So they head for St. Louis to see that amazing new balloon everyone is talking about—the one bound for Haley's Comet.
The balloon's pilot turns out to be that famous writer, Mr. Mark Twain. But Twain is out for more than simply a pleasure cruise. It is April 21, 1910. Mark Twain is about to become history…
Now don't get me wrong. I like Nick Park. The stuff he does with Plasticine is amazing. But every time I see those joyful pop-eyed figures of his, they remind me of long ago. You probably don't remember Will Vinton, except insofar as he was the guy responsible for those damned California Raisins and Domino's Pizza Noid commercials that you are—right at this very moment—cringing at the mention of.
Vinton's career arc might be a cautionary tale for struggling animators looking to have a go at starting their own company. After scoring an Oscar in 1974 for the surreal museum tour "Closed Mondays," Vinton searched for a way to parlay his "Claymation" techniques into mainstream success. Sure, "Closed Mondays" ran endlessly on PBS stations looking for filler between programs, but remember that in the 1970s, Disney and Hanna Barbara had animation pretty much locked up, and there was little money for independents. And Vinton was working with clay, a medium that had never been taken very seriously for animation. Vinton had something to prove.
To prove that Claymation had artistic potential beyond the PBS crowd, Vinton developed a short film, "The Diary of Adam and Eve," a synthesis of two short works by Mark Twain that reflect on his relationship with his wife Livy, whose death in 1904 shattered Twain's heart. Once Vinton had evidence of Claymation's potential in hand, he raised money for a feature film based on the life and work of Twain.
The Adventures of Mark Twain was a flop, scoring less than a million dollars at the box office and forcing Vinton to focus on years of commercial work. Hence those singing raisins. Vinton still tried to push Claymation for more than advertising, however. He contributed sequences to everything from Sesame Street to "Captain Eo" for Disney's EPCOT. After the commercial work dried up, he tried to make a television comeback in the '90s with The P.J.'s, but by that point, his company was floundering. Vinton was forced out (much like Famous Amos, the company kept his name and tried to go on without him) and has been struggling for a comeback since.
So it isn't a pretty story. But it places The Adventures of Mark Twain in the context of a time when independent animation was at a crossroads. Artists like Don Bluth, John Lasseter, and Will Vinton were striking out on their own in the early 1980s, caught between the desire for mainstream success, the impulse to explore their artistic limits, and the realities of, well, having no money. Some of these animators succeeded; some had a few glorious moments before burning out.
If anything, this may make Vinton's choice of Mark Twain as his artistic muse more interesting. Twain also struggled with his reputation as a lightweight humorist and his ambitions as a serious artist. He struggled even harder with money. And while his contemporaries thought he might be bound for a spectacular flame-out, he kept smoldering through, like Haley's Comet, for longer than anyone expected—least of all himself.
True to its title, The Adventures of Mark Twain really is more about Twain than the kids who come along on the trip. This might seem puzzling for first time viewers of the film. Your instinct—indeed the instinct of most studio executives as well—should be to make Twain a wise mentor and focus attention on Tom, Huck, and Becky. After all, the story begins with them, as they stow away on Twain's gadget-laden dirigible for a trip to the famous comet. Narratively, Twain should be there simply to offer stories with handy lessons, so that the children can prove themselves and work through character arcs that show their growing maturity. At least, that's the way studio execs would write this.
But Tom, Huck, and Becky cannot change. They are fictional characters. They are locked into a permanent childhood. The film makes no pretense about this: we are reminded several times that these characters stepped right out of Twain's collected works. If anything, they might serve as Mark Twain's conscience, rather than the other way around, in order to help him come to terms with his physical death and literary immortality. Their time aboard Twain's balloon, apart from a few plot hurdles on the way to the comet, largely consists of watching, hearing, or directly experiencing characteristic moments from Twain's literary output.
We begin with Twain's most beloved story during his lifetime, "The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County," a tale of a clever con job. That earlier "Diary of Adam and Eve" is played out in two parts, hinting at Twain's existential version of Original Sin: humans were flawed from the beginning with an amusingly clueless misunderstanding of their place in the universe. The conflict between faith and uncaring reality (and our very small place in the universe) is further developed in a loose adaptation of the first chapter of "Captain Stormfield's Visit to Heaven."
But before that tale, Vinton steers The Adventures of Mark Twain into its darkest moment—a sequence that was frequently cut when this movie used to air on cable during the 1990s—one of Twain's many incarnations of The Mysterious Stranger. The angel Satan, appearing as a sort of commedia dell'arte mask, teaches Tom, Huck, and Becky about the brutal indifference of death. The scene is creepy and unnerving, and it makes you wonder exactly how this movie scored a G rating. But it is also essential to understanding the emotional undercurrents of Mark Twain and his work.
All these literary digressions are fascinating, but because of them, the film tends to have a jerky pace. This is carried over into the animation as well. The limit of Vinton's medium is speed. So he relies more on talking than action. When Vinton does push his clay into rapid transformations, they have the squash and stretch that marks a heartfelt touch of primitivism. You can sense the physicality of every artistic choice. Somebody's hands were clearly in this work.
This would merely be a technical showpiece however if Vinton could not draw the audience into believing these characters. What strikes you right away is the subtlety of expression: Vinton molds the clay into real performances, remarkable in their depth. If the strength of good acting can be measured by your ability to see a character thinking, then Vinton's figures, in their faces and body language, come across as real actors. Veteran character actor James Whitmore manages to sound much like we expect Twain to sound, and he delivers plenty of quips (although it is hard to go wrong when you are quoting a master of the aphorism), but it is the character animation that actually draws real personality out of the clay.
If you have studied Twain's life and work, look for the wealth of in-jokes that draw on the script's comprehensive approach to its subject. There is a Paige typesetting machine just like the one which bankrupted Twain. Huck dubs his pet frog Homer, which might be both a reference to Twain's odyssey (from which there will be no homecoming) and the British press famously dubbing Twain "a very Homer of boyhood" in 1907.
The tricky script, by Susan Shadburne, plays with identity and performance. She clearly knows her Twain—what it means in addition to what it says. This is more than just an amusing anthology of Twain's short works: this might serve as a miniature course in Twain and all his major themes except race. You cannot really fault the film for leaving out race though: it is such an enormously complicated issue in Twain's work that there is no practical way to deal with it in a film that the investors would have still wanted to try and market to children. Still, the script manages to be surprisingly honest about nearly every other key theme of Twain's work: his take on gender politics, religion, and the author's bitter misanthropy.
There is an underlying trauma to this tale, as there is to all great comedy. Even Twain himself once said (though oddly not in this film) that "the secret source of humor itself is not joy but sorrow." And it is more than the death of Twain's beloved Livy that lurks in the shadow of this one-way journey to meet the comet. The survey of Twain's career shown here shows an artist whose early fame was not only built on a mastery of local color, but from the beginning showed a cynical side. The public Twain, white suit and fast wit, was a fictional construct much like Huck Finn or Tom Sawyer. The private Twain was often a brooding misanthrope whose humor was tinged with a disgust at human folly.
To really get all this, you have to know your Twain, and The Adventures of Mark Twain is really more accessible to those who already know a little something about his work than those who only know of him through upbeat movie versions of Huckleberry Finn or—heaven help us—visits to Disney's Tom Sawyer's Island. The least MGM could have done on this DVD is provide some background—any background—to the works adapted for this film. But other than to call the film "educating and entertaining" on the case, MGM and Sony do not seem to know what to do with this movie. No extras are included at all. The print itself is in generally good shape, although it is a bit soft in spots (which I will chalk up to the circumstances of Vinton's handmade production methods) and shows some edge enhancement. The audio is limited to the front channels with a faux-surround (LCRS) mix. Try not to cringe at the very '80s musical score (by the laughably-named Billy Scream). Fortunately, Twain's wit and wisdom trumps even the darkest human folly: cheesy synthesizer music.
In short, those looking for the cheery sort of folk who inhabit the stop-motion worlds of Nick Park or even Henry Selick will find The Adventures of Mark Twain rather cerebral for an animated film. This may make the film sound, well, not very much fun. Your kids are likely to be restless. But for you grown-ups, there is some fine satire and occasionally insightful comments about the condition of what Twain called "the damned human race." And ultimately, the film makes a strong case for the reassurances of companionship and humor in the face of the void. Think of this as the most existential clay-animated movie ever made.
The Adventures of Mark Twain may not be a children's movie, in spite of Sony's brightly-colored packaging. But it is thought-provoking, inventive, funny, and moving. If only we could have more flops like this one.
The court dismisses the charges and sends Mr. Vinton's file over to John Lasseter at his new job. You'll need talented animators with unique projects to revitalize Disney's animation department, Mr. Lasseter. Give Will Vinton a look.
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